An Echelon Media Company
Tuesday September 27th, 2022

Bhutanese women seek leadership roles

ECONOMYNEXT – In traditionally matrilineal Bhutan, patriarchal attitudes stifle women’s growth at decision-making levels.

Unlike most Asian countries, in Bhutan girls are wanted and favoured. Indeed, upon marriage, most men move to the homes of their bride, and property is transferred from mother to daughter. Women manage multiple tasks at home, while also holding office jobs, and are the decision-makers in the family. 

Yet, leadership roles in society for women remain elusive.

Says Aum Phuntshok Chhoden, Executive Director of the Bhutan Network for Empowering Women, (BNEW) ‘women enjoy almost a mythical status in comparison to their counterparts in neighbouring countries,’ yet, ‘in the political discourse is a male-dominated system.’

In the first parliamentary elections held in Bhutan in 2008, just ten of the 72 seats went to women. Of those, 8 had been elected, while two had been appointed by Bhutan’s King, Chodden explained.

That number had dropped at the next parliamentary election, with the total percentage of seats held by women going from 14 to 8 she added. But at the 2018 elections, there had been a small improvement, with the percentage of women rising to 15.3 percent.

The current Cabinet of 10, has just one woman, the health minister.

Chhoden was speaking at a webinar on the ‘Role of Women in Modern Bhutanese Society’, organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) South Asia on December 16th. Moderated by Namgay Zam the Executive Director of Journalists Association of Bhutan (JAB), the panel included Tshering Dolkar, Executive Director of Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women (RENEW) and Aum Sonam Wangmo, Founder of Bhutan Yu-Druk Tours.

At the Local Government level, the 2011 election saw just 98 women elected for the 1,454 seats. One woman had been elected a chairperson of a Local Government authority. That number doubled in 2016, with two women appointed as chairpersons.  In the civil service too, there are fewer women in leadership roles. She added that the Bhutan’s King had appointed two women to the post of Secretary to civil service institutions. 

The exception to the rule seems to be in the constitutional bodies, where two of the four commissions are chaired by women.

Her organisation BENEW works extensively with women, grooming and preparing them to take on decision making positions at the highest levels of society.

The discussion was clear; the issue is not so much about women who have been trailblazers in many fields, not aspiring to be in leadership positions, but society’s unwillingness to open up to women taking on roles that have traditionally been held by men. As the panellists stated, Bhutan’s Monarchy has opened the door for women to be in decision-making positions, appointing them to head Constitutional Commissions and to the National Assembly.

However, even strong and capable women are not considered for a leadership position at the local government level for instance, if that role involves dressing up as a monk or riding a horse at a festival. As Chhoden explained, a woman taking on such a task is seen as inauspicious. 

Namgay Zam, added that the picture in the media industry is bleaker. While at least a few women are in parliament, so far there have only been two women in leadership positions in the media; a managing director appointed to the national broadcasting service in 2008, and the appointment of a woman editor in chief of the national newspaper Keunsel in 2018.  Male journalists, she said, far outnumber their female counterparts, and according to data collected by JAB, the ratio is 92 to 30. 

Across the country, women in leadership hold just about 17 to 18 percent, the webinar heard. 

The phallus symbol is displayed everywhere to ward off evil and harm, indicating the reality, says Chhoden that ‘patriarchy, dominates life at all levels.’

Tashiring Dolkar explained that both the Queen Mother and the Queen of Bhutan take a special interest in spearheading programmes to empower women. The Queen, who is the patron of the organisation Dolkar, uses the 2013 Domestic Violence Act to address societal challenges and to promote gender equality and equity.  Women, have endured domestic violence, mental health and trauma issues for years, she stated. Bhutan scores high on the World Happiness index, however, taken as a whole, says Dolkar, many Bhutanese, mostly women, are dealing with mental health issues. The separate mental health unit set up at the hospital, an initiative of the Queen, therefore, comes at an opportune moment, she pointed out.

Dolkar recalled that as a third-year College student in 1990, she had been asked to speak on the role of women in development at an event attended by the 4th King of Bhutan.  She had raised the need for a 25percent quota for women in parliament, resulting in the King questioning as to why there was such a drawback for women to play an equal role as men in society.

Responding to a question from the audience, Dolkar pointed out that women do not have to take on a male persona to be strong and accepted by society.

Her organisation provides many services to women, from counselling, legal aid, livelihood skills to micro-finance. 

Aum Sonam Wangmo transitioned from being a homemaker to a businesswoman in 1985. Those were days when airline ticketing was handled in Calcutta, India, and communication was limited to snail mail and the phone, which actually involved a Trunk call.  She also entered the tourism field providing trekking services, where she led a group of 10 to 15 group of men. She was ‘thrown into it, and took it on,’ Wangmo said, adding that anything is possible when “you put your mind to it.” 

Could a woman become the Prime Minister of Bhutan?  Says Wangmo, Bhutanese women multi-task and bear the responsibility of managing their families, and it is a woman’s decision whether they want to take on the added duties of a Prime Minister.

With the advent of technology and many young women having access to information, their enterprising spirit opens up more possibilities, she added. 

Bhutan measures its development through five-year plans, and, as Chhoden explained, there has been a concerted effort by the government to include gender sensitivity in mainstream activities. Bhutan is a signatory to many international conventions and must also meet the SGD goals, she said, she fears that may not be possible in the area of gender equality unless there is a ‘policy tweak or legislative tool.” She welcomed the inclusion of a national key research field on gender equality and women empowerment in the most recent five-year plan. 

India’s Panchayat system has given much hope to Bhutanese women, several of whom have been exposed to the workings of that system. While Indian women only receive an allowance for their contribution to the Panchayat, Bhutanese women in the civil service are paid for their work, and are better placed to make inroads at decision-making levels, Chhoden observed.

Society is flexible she noted, and “we must dare to be strong’” to counter the idea that only men are capable of leadership, while women play a ‘meek and humble role.’

The modern Bhutan, Chhoden concluded has the opportunity to “remove herself from the patrilineal role as practised in other nations, and use the strong matrilineal tradition to groom young boys and men to be more caring, compassionate and honest.”  A blend of the ‘good matrilineal and patrilineal traits’ explained Chodden, is the best way to proceed, as the ‘natural characteristics found amongst women, can be used to nature a feminine mould in leadership.”


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